Death penalty possible in Boston bombing case

Posted: April 23, 2013

The death penalty is very much in play in the Boston bomber case, even though Massachusetts is one of more than a dozen states without capital punishment.

The surviving bombing suspect, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was charged today, not under state law, but under federal law for using a weapon of mass destruction and for malicious destruction of property resulting in death.

The Justice Department said that, if convicted, Tsarnaev could face the federal death penalty.

Although such executions are rare, there are 59 people on federal death row.

The final decision to seek the ultimate penalty belongs to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, as was explained by Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, following Tsarnaev's capture Friday night.

About 40 federal statues include a possible death penalty, including killing as a result of using a weapon of mass destruction, killing as a result of using explosives to knowingly cause harm to people or property, and the slaying of a local police officer assisting in a federal investigation.

Three people were killed and more than 200 wounded last Monday when two bombs exploded last near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Authorities identified two suspects: Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died early Friday morning after a gun battle with police.

Before the police pursuit began, the two allegedly gunned down MIT police officer Sean Collier on Thursday night.

That crime might also be punishable under a federal statute, 18 USC 1121, which expressly states that "Whoever intentionally kills (1) a State or local official, law enforcement officer, or other officer or employee while working with Federal law enforcement officials . . . shall be sentenced according to the terms of section 1111, including by sentence of death or by imprisonment for life."

No such charge, however, came down today.

Although federal executions are rare - the last one was carried in 2003 - 57 men and two women are on federal death row, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

This case, however, has been called the worst act of terrorism on American soil since the bombings on Sept. 11, 2001.

That June, in a case involving domestic terrorism, Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection by the federal government after being convicted of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people.

Various experts have pointed out factors like the suspect's young age, his providing useful information about a larger plot, or a guilty plea might lead prosecutors to opt for life imprisonment.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or

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